Reuniting Families Separated at the Border Won’t Be Easy

Children at a tent encampment in Tornillo, Texas. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When the Trump administration ends its policy of separating children and their parents at the border, it will be an indisputably good thing. But the horror visited upon the thousands of migrant families torn apart by the “zero tolerance” immigration policy will not be over, because there’s no plan to reunite the children taken into government custody with their detained parents.

“This policy is relatively new,” Steven Wagner at the Department of Health and Human Services told the Associated Press. HHS is responsible for caring for the children after they’ve been taken from their parents, who are locked up by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice. “We’re still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication,” Wagner added.

So far that experience is not going well. Some parents in detention are struggling to find their children, some of whom are being flown to places as far away from the border as Michigan. Other parents have been deported without ever learning the whereabouts of their kids. As the Houston Chronicle reports, the records kept by the various agencies with a role in this process are messy and hard to track:

Social workers struggle to find parents within the two agencies overseeing immigrant adult detention, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Officials in charge of children have said they are not routinely provided information about how family separations occur or where a minor’s parents may be.

Parents have been encouraged to call a hotline to find their kids, but some have been given the wrong number. And those who do get the right number may be told, as one reporter for Quartz was, that they should call HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. Spelling errors and the language barrier complicate matters too. Even when English-speaking advocates are enlisted to help families find their children, their success or failure can seem more a matter of luck than anything else.

Many families won’t be lucky, John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE under President Obama, told NBC News. The lack of a reunification protocol could lead to “permanent separation” of parent and child, he said.

“You could be creating thousands of immigrant orphans in the U.S. that one day could become eligible for citizenship when they are adopted,” Sandweg said on NBC News. “I think we’re going to see hundreds of cases where the children are permanently separated from their parents, becoming wards of the United States,” he said in an interview with Global News.

For those families that are able to reconnect, the news won’t be all good. On top of the psychological damage inflicted by the forced separation, a new report from the Texas Tribune and Reveal suggests that many are being held in unsafe facilities that have been “accused of serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse.” Even when the policy of family separation ends, untold damage will have already been done.

Reuniting Families Separated at the Border Won’t Be Easy